Anorexia and the Sublime

I wouldn’t say I ever ‘tried’ to become anorexic. Upon realising that I was, I found the pull of a casual stroll through various ‘pro-ana’ blogs irresistible, but aside from a renewed urge to be the best anorexic ever, I found the content rather distasteful. Anorexia is an incredibly competitive disease and engaging with other sufferers often results in a heightened drive to become sicker, the most ill. Pro-Ana and Pro-Bella websites are a dark corner of the internet in which ‘Ana’ and her best friend ‘Bella’ (bulimia) encourage young girls to starve themselves with motivating material such as listing all the reasons boys don’t like fat girls. It’s a place for seasoned skeletons to applaud each other on being let out of hospital so they can starve again or offer advice to fresh healthy blood on avoiding one’s parents noticing uneaten lunches, or how to fight the consistent growl of a desperate stomach. I wasn’t sure exactly who needed this community, or why these were questions for which answers didn’t come naturally. I had known from a young age that boys like girls to be small, sweet and breakable; I threw food away at school or pawned it on my friends and as for the hunger… well the bloat usually takes over and eating is the last thing you want to do, and in the meantime there’s always sugarless mints and dancing.

I still find pride in occasionally making it through most of a work shift without eating anything other than crunching on those sweet minty goodies. This is not at all to say that I am not recovered. I’m a poster girl for anorexia recovery. I went from losing one kilo a day, and being moved to the front of a long hospital waiting list, to fighting the illness from home. I wanted to start Year 12 with my peers. My eating disorder had gobbled up and spat out my past and present, so I decided to fight for the future by gobbling up my mum’s boiled date cake with glasses of full cream milk, which I managed to not spit out most of the time. Five years later, I’m eating eggs on toast for breakfast, before finishing off a packet of sour gummy bears just because I feel like it.

Even so,  I never lost my love of being hungry. I find myself walking around for hours after a shift so I end up being on my feet for nine or ten hours, because in exhaustion I find energy. I eat because I must, and sometimes it even tastes good and makes me happy . But I still wish I didn’t have to. I wish food wasn’t a need, that I didn’t have to face the daily rigour of shoving units of fibre and nutrients into my body before it makes its way down a complex fleshy tube, bubbling and breaking down all the way before being expelled, used. Transformed into waste.

I often think about what lies between an animal and a body, a meal and some shit, a luscious lock of hair and a gross tangled knot of keratin stuck in a shower drain. Perhaps it’s that the former has possibility, time still to become beautiful and more, whereas the latter has lost that opportunity. No one wants to be confronted with an end-point. Deadlines are terrifying. So we flush them away.

I used to say, after I recovered, that I’d never become sick again. I thought that the illness had been able to overwhelm me and make me starve myself for months on end only because it tapped into my unyielding belief that being skinny would fix me: that all my unhappiness, awkwardness, unattractiveness, unsureness would just un-exist along with my tummy rolls and chunky thighs. Realising that being skinny didn’t fix any of that, the anorexic part of my brain wouldn’t stand a chance against my logical side, my fake-it-till-you-make-it-self-love. I would never again cut down on the ingredients in my daily salad until it was just spinach leaves and tomatoes, or swap an apple for a carrot for morning tea because it had a few less kilojoules.

Last night at a work meeting they had hummus and chips, and as is always the case for people eating hummus with chips they start talking about how much they love hummus and carrot. A big whole carrot in hummus. Raw carrot still makes me squirm. When it’s all you eat they don’t taste so nice. Carrots are nothing but bitter fibre and beta-carotene.

I still can’t imagine myself ever actively choosing to be anorexic. But I’m no longer sure about never becoming sick again. Recently, I was shocked to learn that I’d gained more than ten kilos in the past year. I’m happy about it because I look better this way, but I was shocked because I didn’t realise I had previously been that skinny.  So many of the clothes I was wearing a year ago sit like relics in my wardrobe of a past that’s hazy and foreign, like they belonged to some other girl. If it wasn’t for zips not doing up all the way or buttons pulling open, I’m not sure I would have noticed, or have much memory of her.

Over a year ago I went through a terrible break-up.  This is difficult to forget; I don’t need the small clothes in my wardrobe or the scars on my ankle from when I fainted in the shower and smashed the glass door into a thousand pieces to make memories of him float through my mind. But what these relics have taught me, with much retrospection, is that my reaction to sadness is to attempt to transcend it: to find a higher place, above being a dork in high school, or being left by the man I adored. There’s a freedom in starvation. I don’t look for it there, but it finds me. Once my body is empty I can float, and breathe and cry and suffer as something Else. An Other. Something beyond the human need to eat and shit and sleep. Beyond the pressure to finish an overdue essay except I can’t keep my eyes open to write because I didn’t sleep last night; I was alone but he was already with someone else.

People who have never had anorexia nervosa say it’s about control.

It’s not.

I have no control when I’m sick. I’m completely at the will of the illness. I’m obsessed with it. But I don’t even know if it’s truly there, what is my reality and what is my anorexia’s reality. It will tell me I’m superior to my friends because they chug down chocolate milk at lunch and I have the strength to resist. It will tell me that I’m special and beautiful but not beautiful enough, nor will I ever be. It will tell me I don’t deserve to eat even my meagre rations today because I didn’t do well enough on that test. And I will listen to what it says.  I’ll bend and break for it like I did for that man I loved.

I don’t want control. I want to be able to lose it. To give up. Forget myself in the hunger and the exhaustion and the spinning head and the tingly toes and the cold fingers and the white pallor of my blood-drained face.

My anorexia is Sublime. It is an experience which raises me above the ordinary, forces me to ignore the human needs of my body, dangles me in front of Death and whispers that things are easier on the other side of the deadline.

I have found sublimity in my anorexia when I have lain in a body of skin and bones, felt my fingers and toes turn cold and my heart slow, felt my mind continue in a body which was no longer. I have found sublimity in my anorexia when I was aware of being curled up in a pile of broken shower glass, but I didn’t want to leave the dreams floating around behind my eyes.

I hate my anorexia. I hate its Sublime. My anorexia and its Sublime are liars. I am human. I can’t exist in the Sublime. My anorexia will always have to betray me and throw me back, to the cramps of a begging stomach or a chronic headache or going temporarily blind because the blood somehow couldn’t pump to my face, to eyes stung with tears because goddammit, I didn’t want this, I just wanted to be pretty. My anorexia and its Sublime are cheats. I don’t learn anything from transcending, I learn from how I find my way back to Earth. Back to my body with its hairs and shit and stretch-marks and rolls. Back to my body which that man didn’t want anymore.

I’ll never lose my anorexia. I let it come out to play sometimes, when I skip breakfast or dinner, or run on the spot before I go to bed. Anorexia is not about control. Fighting it is. Because I fight that desire to transcend, to starve, to float away from my body and I fight it every day. The urge to give into the Sublime, that thrill and its temporary pleasures.

The Romantics used to say that the Sublime was masculine. Incomprehensible, complex, something greater, pushing us forward. Beauty was feminine. Sweet, understandable, compliant.  They were so wrong.

I’ve spent far too much time with the Sublime by my side and I’ve seen too much.

It can’t have me anymore. I won’t let it. I’d rather spend my life getting to know Beauty.

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Afterword

There are lot of wonderful resources for seeking information on eating disorders, if you are worried that you or someone you know is suffering. As for a word of advice on recovery, I will say what I wish I could go back and tell my sixteen year old self: If you have the strength to get yourself here, you have the strength to get yourself out. Eat with your friends, associate food with celebration and not guilt. Do not feel the pressure to wake up one day and be magically healed. Set small goals: one type of meal at a time, be proud of yourself for every milestone. Feel compassion for those around you who will likely not understand what you are going through, but ask for them to seek professional help rather than venting their frustration and sadness at the situation on you. Know that your struggle is valid but you can overcome it. Never underestimate your ability to heal.

https://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

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Image can be found here.

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The author is completing her honours and still can’t believe she gets to write about knights and love potions, just like her eight-year-old self would have wanted. She likes long walks, every kind of tea, and has a life goal of owning an Irish Wolfhound. 

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